Dossier Philosophy


The Significance of Disasters

by Florent Guénard & Philippe Simay , 29 April 2011

Disasters and the tragedies that they entail accumulate, along with human and social science research trying to grasp the significance of their repetition. The aim of the dossier launched today by Books & Ideas is to comprehend the nature of these studies.

Bhopal, Tchernobyl, World Trade Center, Katrina, Haïti, Fukushima… The list of the disasters that have marked the rhythm of our recent history is long. Disasters take us aback, because we are unable to anticipate them and control their consequences. The general compassion that swells in their wake and the forms of solidarity, whether real or symbolic, that they produce cannot conceal the powerlessness they inevitably remind us of. Isn’t disaster the name we give to refer to our own finiteness nowadays? Isn’t it the expression of the present-time feeling that despite all our efforts, unforeseeable and ineluctable events still occur? As a result, can’t disasters be viewed as what compels us to reflect again upon our control of nature, as well as upon our mastery of technologies? Aren’t they leading us to get a different perspective on the future and on our capacity to predict?

These interrogations are at the core of disaster studies, which are currently becoming a new research field for the human and social sciences. Disasters are significant, but their significance implies, to be fully grasped, that our way of apprehending contemporary tragedies – whether natural disasters, technical accidents or deliberate massacres – be questioned. Their meaning should be understood (i.e. how disasters affect and are perceived by those subjected to them, but also by those who can feel their threat; what they tell us, or not, about our powerlessness and our failures). Their impact should be assessed (i.e. they tear histories apart, they shatter certainties and reinforce beliefs). Their reoccurrence should be anticipated (we must examine the way we contemplate scientific expertise and our capacity to act collectively).

We can all perceive how fruitful the notion of disaster is as far as the reflection upon the main characteristics of our relationship to the contemporary is concerned. The way the notion currently saturates public and media discourse to the point of making it inaudible nonetheless demands that it be further examined. Where do its scientific specificity and legitimacy come from? The question arises as the term ‘disaster’ refers as much to natural cataclysms as to terrorist acts. How do disaster studies construct their object and define their specific field of analysis? This dossier aims at giving answers to these questions and at showing the great diversity of disciplinary approaches, and of outlooks on the notion of disaster. What is at stake is the constitution of a new scientific paradigm, distinct from that of risk, which considerably alters the way we think about how men and women relate to their environment, and even to their abilities.

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by Florent Guénard & Philippe Simay, 29 April 2011

To quote this article :

Florent Guénard & Philippe Simay, « The Significance of Disasters », Books and Ideas , 29 April 2011. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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